In this guide:
tips & local customs
Part 2 (coming soon):
how to get there
see & do
why I love it
Mission Beach Cafe
Presidio Social Club
Good Mong Kok Bakery
Cowgirl Creamery Sidekick Cafe
Hog Island Oyster Co.
Super Duper Burgers
Mission Chinese Food
State Bird Provisions
San Francisco quickly became one of my favorite cities the first time I hiked up one of its ridiculously steep hills, turned around, and saw the sweeping city and water views all tangled together. It’s the city where I ate my first Michelin-starred meal. And it’s a place that embodies so many things that I love: sustainability, locally sourced food, being active, inclusivity.
I try to keep up with the SF restaurant scene (because it’s just so good), and every trip is a balance of revisiting the places we love and discovering new gems. In the past five years, I’ve racked up a long list of “favorite” restaurants because it’s too hard to narrow it down to just one or two. Below, you’ll find suggestions for every meal. As always, this isn’t meant to be an all-inclusive list of the best places in a city, but rather it’s a list of all the best places I’ve been and would recommend.
In Part 2 of the travel guide, you’ll find my recommendations for where to stay, along with a number of my favorite things to see and do that make me feel more like a local than a tourist.
Mission Beach Cafe – A classic SF brunch spot on the northern end of the Mission District. Diners wait in long lines for the seasonal, organic brunch on the weekend, so get there early. This is one of few places that serve brunch seven days a week, so go Monday through Thursday for a shorter wait. The brioche french toast and duck hash are favorites of ours.
Plow – The city’s seasonal, organic focus is certainly apparent on the menu at this casual Potrero Hill spot. As is the case with many of SF’s brunch hotspots, they don’t take reservations, so get there early on weekends or prepare to wait in line. They also serve brunch items daily. Order anything that comes with the Plow potatoes! (Pictured: prosciutto + egg toast with Plow potatoes)
Foreign Cinema – A former cinema turned hopping weekend brunch spot that actually takes reservations (!) and screens old movies on the wall. The seasonal menu has a variety of inventive dishes and cocktails that will suit many different tastes, but you have to get there early to snag some of the coveted warm cinnamon buns.
Presidio Social Club – Escape the city in Presidio National Park, where early twentieth century military barracks were repurposed into this inviting dining space. The weekend brunch menu serves Californian takes on classic brunch dishes, from pastries to egg dishes to salads and sandwiches. It’s a great place to take your parents, and they also take reservations! (Pictured: challah French toast with pecan butter + maple syrup)
Tartine Manufactory – The folks from Tartine Bakery have done it again. This bright, industrial-chic space in the Mission lives up to the hype! Seasonal breakfast and lunch menus are available daily (in addition to dinner service), and they’re complemented with craft coffee service and creative cocktails. While you’re there, watch the bakers do their thing in the glass-walled dough room, and pick up one of their celebrated loaves of bread baked in the humongous oven. They don’t take breakfast or lunch reservations, so put your name in at the host stand (they’ll text you when a table is ready) and go browse the beautiful dishes and handmade goods in the adjacent Heath Ceramics space while you wait. (Pictured: Tartine bar area, a citrus + avocado salad, the bread rack, Heath News, Heath Ceramics bowls)
Outerlands – This Outer Sunset is a hike from most of the hotels in SF, but totally worth it! The thoughtful, locally sourced breakfast/lunch (weekday) and brunch (weekend) menus are served alongside craft coffee and excellent tea service. Any place that has “warm chocolate chip cookies” on the menu and lets you start your meal with them is a winner in my book–though the insane grilled cheese stole the show for us. Unsurprisingly, they don’t take reservations for daytime meals, so expect a wait. Afterward, walk a few blocks west to Ocean Beach or a couple blocks north to Golden Gate Park. (Pictured: warm chocolate chip cookie, flower arrangement, cast iron grilled cheese and soup of the day)
Good Mong Kok Bakery – Our Chinatown favorite. This is a no-frills, take out only, cash only, hole-in-the-wall kind of place. It’s “dim sum nice food” according to the sign out front. If you’re a picky eater, this might not be the place for you. If you like a good food adventure, get in line for the shrimp dumplings, bbq pork buns, and other steamed goodies! For two people, $5-10 should do. They’re open 7am to 6pm everyday, and prime lunchtime gets crowded, so plan accordingly. (Pictured: bakery exterior, Nick with bag of dumplings)
Cowgirl Creamery Sidekick Cafe – Cowgirl Creamery produces award-winning, organic cheeses in nearby Marin County. You can find all of their cheeses for sale in a European-style cheese shop in the Ferry Building, and there’s an adjacent cafe serving dishes made with their cheese! (You might be able to find their cheeses at your local Whole Foods, too. Their buttery, triple cream Mt. Tam is a personal fave.)
Hog Island Oyster Company – This company has been raising oysters in Tomales Bay, CA (about 1.5 hours north of SF) since before I was born! Their Ferry Building outpost has prime bayfront seating that’s perfect for a leisurely lunch. Try their oysters raw, grilled with wasabi butter, in chowder, or cornmeal crusted on a kale caesar salad (or a dozen other seasonal preparations). They don’t take reservations, but the Bay Bridge views and people watching make the wait not so bad. (Pictured: grilled oysters and kale caesar, Ferry Building exterior)
Super Duper Burgers – For a quick meal or snack, stop by one of the several Bay Area locations of Super Duper Burgers. These aren’t just regular fast food burgers, though. The whole ethos of the company is intentional. Their food is made with high quality, local ingredients, like humanely-raised beef for the burgers, non-GMO potatoes for the fries, and local, organic cream in the shakes. Even the packaging is 100% compostable! Fortunately, the taste isn’t compromised by their earth-friendly values. (Pictured: the Super Burger)
The Mill – Right around the corner from Alamo Square Park and the Painted Ladies, you’ll find this pretty bakery/shop that serves Josey Baker’s famous bread. Other than pastries, bread, and drinks, they just serve one daily sandwich. I never would’ve guessed that I’d repeatedly exclaim how good a beet sandwich was, but I did… over and over. My point is, if they can make a damn good beet sandwich, I’m happy to recommend that you go see what their sandwich of the day is. (They also have pizza night every night from 6-9). Pick up a loaf of bread for later or stay a while to drink coffee and do some work. (Pictured: shelves with freshly made bread and house milled flours)
Nopa – An old bank building in the NoPa neighborhood (“North of the Panhandle”) found new life over a decade ago as this contemporary Californian hotspot. Reservations are still difficult to land, but there are a few tables, a shared community table, and the bar available for walk-ins every night. Their locally sourced, seasonal philosophy is evident in the ever-changing menus. It’s energetic and cool and worth the effort to try for a reservation one month out.
Nopalito – A couple blocks away at Nopa’s sister restaurant, Nopalito, the same sustainable, seasonal food philosophy is employed to create an organic Mexican menu. Think brussels sprouts quesadillas, heirloom beans and rice, pork carnitas with vibrant toppings, and sweet potato tamales. From classic margaritas to housemade horchata, there’s a thoughtfully crafted drink for everyone. They don’t have reservations at either location, but they do have a call-ahead waitlist. (They also offer a to-go menu if you want to lounge in a park or cozy up in your hotel room to eat.)
Mission Chinese – What started as a weekly pop-up within Lung Shan Restaurant became the irreverent Chinese food revolution that is Mission Chinese. The former restaurant was eventually overtaken by the pop-up, but their sign still hangs outside. This bare bones Mission District eatery is decorated with giant paper dragons and furnished with tables that look more like a high school cafeteria than an award-winning dining establishment. But don’t be fooled; this isn’t your average mall food court Chinese food. The thrice cooked bacon and green tea noodles are almost always part of our order. They now take reservations!
Frances – Here you’ll find approachable, seasonal food in a casual, neighborhood seating. It’s great for a date night or double date. Examples of their creative yet comforting dishes include bacon beignets, duck sausage pappardelle, and locally sourced steak with smashed yukon potatoes. Save room for dessert, too! It’s also worth checking out Chef Melissa Perello’s other refined-yet-casual spot, Octavia (one Michelin Star).
Del Popolo – This super popular pizza food truck got it’s own brick and mortar location in Nob Hill. The huge wood oven in the center of the space turns out flavorful, Neapolitan-inspired pizzas and wood-fired antipasti. Reservations are highly recommended, especially on weekends. (Pictured: wood fire oven and bar area, wood fired carrots with yogurt, broccoli rabe pizza)
Petit Crenn – If two Michelin Star restaurant Atelier Crenn is out of the budget, try the more affordable little sister, Petit Crenn. This Hayes Valley restaurant serves a 5-course, French-inspired tasting menu nightly. The wait staff is knowledgeable yet friendly, the space is super stylish, and you may even get a glimpse of the Chef’s Table star herself. In addition to nightly dinner, they also offer a weekend brunch. (Pictured: stylish white interior)
State Bird Provisions (*) – This hip, dim sum-style eatery in the Fillmore district is worth the pain of landing a table. Plaid-clad waiters bring around carts of inventive, seasonal dishes that are cooked in the open kitchen. You can also order off of a limited menu; go for the signature fried quail (the namesake state bird of California). Even a few years in, reservations are very difficult to get, but a portion of tables are reserved for walk-ins every night. To get one, line up at the restaurant, and the “walk-in” tables are given out as same day reservations starting around 5:30pm. (For reference, we got there at 5:30pm, waited about 30 minutes in line, and got a 10:15pm reservation for that night.)
Gary Danko (*) – Northern Californian fine dining is at its best here in this classic Fisherman’s Wharf restaurant. Since 1999, the restaurant has collected awards and accolades, and they continue to turn out excellent multi-course meals every night, nearly 20 years later. You can find the modest building in the midst of tourist traps, but once inside, you know you’re somewhere special. The perfectly rehearsed dining experience is ideal for a special occasion but surprisingly unstuffy. Reservations are essential. They offer 3-, 4-, and 5-course prix fixe menus, as well as a set tasting menu.
SPQR (*) – Northern Californian and Italian cuisine blend beautifully at this Lower Pac Heights spot. The name is derived from the symbol of the Roman Empire; the menu takes its inspiration from Italy while remaining true to California’s seasonal bounty. The cozy interior sets an unpretentious stage for a meal of perfectly executed pasta dishes and interesting wine selections. Reservations are essential.
Tartine Bakery – There’s a reason why there’s always a line out of the door at Tartine Bakery’s Mission District shop. Actually, there are lots of reasons: croissants, morning buns, tarts, cookies, cake… It’s all made from scratch and amazing. Even their chocolate pudding is inspired! Grab your goodies to-go and eat them in nearby Mission Dolores Park. (Pictured: beach picnic with pecan tart and meyer lemon bar)
Bi-Rite Creamery – From Tartine Bakery, head one block west on 18th Street past the gorgeous flower display at Bi-Rite Market to Bi-Rite Creamery (just across the road). Get a scoop of ice cream made with local, organic cream, or try their local buffalo milk soft serve. They bake all of the ice cream add-ins–like brownies, toffee, and cookies–in an adjacent space, so you know they’re fresh. They have too many delicious flavors for me to recommend one, so you’ll have to go taste for yourself. (Pictured: exterior of creamery, Bi-Rite flowers)
Dandelion Chocolate – Although San Francisco is known for Ghirardelli chocolate (which is worth visiting!), bean-to-bar chocolate is more my style. Dandelion Chocolate manufactures and sells their small batch chocolate in the heart of the Mission District. They’ll soon move to a larger space just up the road, but wherever they are, they’ll be serving some of my favorite chocolate. In addition to beautifully wrapped, single origin chocolate bars, they also sell chocolate desserts and drinks. After you’re done sampling all of the chocolate bars, I highly recommend the brownie flight; it’s not only delicious, but also illustrates the incredible range of flavors in different chocolates. I always try to grab some cacao nib toffee to snack on later. You can also find Dandelion Chocolate at a kiosk in the Ferry Building. (Pictured: exterior sign, chocolate bar samples, dessert display)
Tips & Local Customs:
In addition to regular tax and tip, most restaurants include a 5% “employee mandate” fee, which helps cover health insurance for restaurant workers.
San Franciscans take restaurant reservations very seriously, so plan accordingly. I recommend trying to book weekend reservations at least 2-3 weeks in advance if possible. You’ll likely need a month or more for prime time reservations at fine dining and/or critically acclaimed places.
See more in Part 2 of the travel guide!